Detroit’s public schools suffer from widespread maintenance issues. Facilities need half a billion dollars worth of repairs, which officials admit are simply not going to happen in the short run. Here’s a 2016 description of “appalling” conditions at a local elementary school:

The gym is closed because half of the floor is buckled and the other half suffered so much rainwater damage from the dripping ceiling that it became covered with toxic black mold. Instead of professionally addressing the problem, a black tarp simply was placed over the entire area like a Band-Aid. That area of the school has been condemned. The once beautiful pool sits empty because no one has come to fix it. The playground is off-limits because a geyser of searing hot steam explodes out of the ground. What do our kids do for exercise with no gym, playground or pool? They walk or run in the halls.

It’s with these steam geysers and moldy gyms in mind that we should evaluate the “Race to the Top” (RTT), the Obama administration’s signature education policy initiative. RTT gave $4.3 billion in funding to U.S. schools through a novel mechanism: Instead of giving out the aid based on how much a state’s schools needed it, the Department of Education awarded it through a competition. Applications “were graded on a 500-point scale according to the rigor of the reforms proposed and their compatibility with four administration priorities: developing common standards and assessments; improving teacher training, evaluation, and retention policies; creating better data systems; and adopting preferred school-turnaround strategies.”

Note what the disproportionate focus is here: quantitative measurement and assessment procedures. Race To The Top emphasized teacher evaluations, the introduction of new technology, the collection and sharing of data, and other “innovations” thought to more efficiently produce student achievement. When the administration promoted RTT, assessment and data collection were spoken of first, along with “revising evaluation and compensation policies to encourage effectiveness.” The Obama administration also wanted states to adopt policies favorable to charter schools—Education secretary Arne Duncan said explicitly that “States that do not have public charter laws or put artificial caps on the growth of charter schools will jeopardize their applications under the Race to the Top Fund.”

The Race to the Top was an overwhelming success, if success is defined as getting states to adopt the policies the Obama administration wanted. The majority of U.S. states instituted at least some of the reforms RTT rewarded. Ordinarily, it is very difficult for a president to alter state-level education policies, but RTT almost coerced states into following Obama’s recommendations. It was introduced in the immediate aftermath of the Great Recession, and states needed the money desperately. With potential rewards in the hundreds of millions, they had little choice but to change their practices and compete for the extra funds that were being dangled in front of them.

There is something deeply objectionable about nearly every part of Race To The Top. First, the very idea of having states scramble to compete for federal funds means that children are given additional support based on how good their state legislatures are at pleasing the president, rather than how much those children need support. Michigan got no Race to the Top money, and Detroit’s schools didn’t see a penny of this $4.2 billion, because it didn’t win the “race.” This “fight to the death” approach (come to think of it, a better name for the program) was novel, since “historically, most federal education funds have been distributed through categorical grant programs that allocate money to districts on the basis of need-based formulas.” Here, though, one can see how Obama’s neoliberal politics differed in its approach from the New Deal liberalism of old: Once upon a time, liberals talking about how to fix schools would talk about making sure all teachers had the resources they needed to give students a quality education. Now, they were importing the competitive capitalist model into government: Show results or find yourself financially starved.

The focus on “innovation,” data, and technology is misguided, too. Innovation is not necessarily improvement—it’s easy to make something new that isn’t actually any better. The poor learning outcomes of online courses are evidence that sometimes the old methods are best. An Obama administration report on how schools innovated in response to RTT is mostly waffle about “partnering with stakeholders” but also contains descriptions of “21st century” measures like the following:

The majority of Race to the Top states reported to the RSN that they are using or expanding their use of social media communication to keep stakeholders engaged and informed. Ohio, for example, embraced Twitter to communicate with teachers, principals and district leaders during its annual state conference in 2012. “One of the keys to success on Twitter is tweeting a lot — five to seven times a day — morning, noon and at night,” said Michael Sponhour, executive director of communications and outreach for the Ohio Department of Education (ODE). Ohio measures its success on Twitter by the number of tweets that are “retweeted” by its followers; about 70 percent of ODE’s tweets are retweeted, he said.

So people at state departments of education are being paid to tweet morning, noon, and night, with nearly ⅓ of the tweets not getting so much as a single retweet, while St. Louis’ beautiful old public school buildings are closed, abandoned, and auctioned off. Delaware “was able to use RTT funds to place data coaches in every school,” even as the steam pipe kept leaking onto that playground in Detroit.

The pro-RTT literature promotes the education reform line of Bill Gates and charter advocates, stressing the need for “accountability” and “evaluation.” There is a mistrust of teachers: The premise here is that unless teachers have the right incentives, they will perform badly. There is an underlying acceptance here of the free market principle that government services do not perform well because they lack the kind of economic rewards and punishments that exist in the private sector. So we should introduce competitive marketplaces in schools (i.e., charterize the system) and do constant assessments of teacher job performance to weed out the Bad Teachers. Race To The Top literature talks about “turning around failing schools,” not “fixing inequality in schools,” and some civil rights activists criticized the program for failing to consider school segregation and inequality in its picture of the country’s educational woes. 

In fact, it’s rather stunning what’s left out of this view of schools. First, it’s not actually based on the empirical observation of reality. It’s based on crude economic theory, which bears about as much relation to the real world as “a science of gymnastics which assumed that men had no skeletons.” There is a strange absence of teachers’ own testimony in this story. This is for understandable reasons: If you believe that teachers are generally overpaid, incompetent government bureaucrats, there’s no need to ask them what they think would improve the schools. A teacher is just a part in the education machine, and your job is to make the part work more efficiently. There’s a kind of “behaviorist” thinking here: You don’t need to know anything about what it’s actually like in a school in order to improve one. You just need to look at a system of inputs and outputs—how do different punishment and reward mechanisms for teachers generate better or worse student outcomes? When you read the words of Arne Duncan discussing Race to the Top, he seems like someone who has never given a thought to what teaching really means in the lives of teachers and students. It’s all about funding mechanisms, test scores, and assessments.

This approach is “top down” in the extreme: The Obama administration decided the policies that were good for teachers, and designed a funding scheme that would pressure states to adopt the desired practices. If you trusted teachers, you would ask them to propose the methods they thought would most improve students’ experiences, then give them the financial resources they needed to improve their schools accordingly. Knowledge is decentralized, meaning that a teacher always knows more about her classroom than the Department of Education does.

Shockingly (or not), the Obama Department of Education didn’t even know that the policies it was promoting would actually work. When it came time, in 2016, to assess what RTT had actually managed to accomplish, the administration conceded that “a vast literature examining the effectiveness of the types of policies promoted by RTT provides no conclusive evidence on whether they improve student outcomes” and that “no experimental studies have examined the relationship between RTT-promoted policies and practices and student outcomes, and non-experimental studies found mixed results.” They didn’t even know whether new assessment methods, more liberal charter policies, streamlined curriculums, etc. would actually do anything for kids. But they made states do it anyway. There was no evidence that it helped students, and it seems as if a good portion of the $4.3 billion was squandered, or at least didn’t begin to reach the students who could have used it most. (With 4 billion dollars you could pay a year’s salary for 80,000 teachers.) 

To me, the entire value system behind the RTT is mistaken. I actually think we should be careful about conceding that education is about “student achievement.” Personally, I think education is about introducing young people to the world, helping them achieve wisdom and understanding, and cultivating their curiosity, thoughtfulness, sociability, and creativity. The Obama administration’s view seemed to be that education is about improving math and reading outcomes in order to prepare students for college. (And college exists to prepare students for jobs—see Obama’s infamous disparaging comment about the economic value of an art history major.) The narrowly “instrumental” view of education has been embraced by libertarians and “progressive” Education Reformers alike, who both seem to accept the premise that schools should be pumping as much Skill into students as possible as efficiently as possible.

I de-emphasize “assessment” entirely when I think about what a good school should be. This is not because I think it doesn’t matter whether students learn. Rather, it’s because I believe that when you create the right school environment, in which teachers have what they need, the learning follows, and you don’t actually need to worry too much about measuring performance. It’s important to remember, as many critics of testing-focused teaching have pointed out, that the more “performance assessment” there is, the less teachers can teach. Time spent assessing is time not spent doing, and among those who demand more quantitatively-based teacher accountability, there is very little discussion of what this actually means in the lives of teachers (e.g., more stress, more paperwork).

I am a lot more interested in the experiences of students and teachers than their Outcomes. Are kids excited to come to school, or do they dread it? Do teachers enjoy their work, or do they feel as if they are being handcuffed by administrative regulations that prevent them from reaching their full potential? I am an old school believer in a “liberal education,” the success of which is not measured quantitatively in terms of your test results but qualitatively in terms of your character.

Race to the Top may have been misguided, but it was the logical education policy that followed from the brand of liberalism Obama believed in. This brand of liberalism is meritocratic, technocratic, and capitalistic, meaning  that it (1) sees competition as good, and winning competitions as proof of desert, (2) defers to policy experts over the actual people affected by policies (3) views productivity and success within the marketplace as a measure of the good. This view sees “innovation,” “technology,” and “competition” as inherently good things, regardless of the facts on the ground. Those of us with a vision of a “humane education” need to reject this type of policy entirely.

RTT was wrong in a thousand ways. It prioritized data collection for its own sake, and in spite of its focus on “achievement” and evidence-based policy, didn’t actually boost achievement and wasn’t based on evidence. It was just free market ideology. Instead of talking about adding yet more assessments of teacher performance, we should be talking about the fact that teachers across the country have to buy their own school supplies, and the profession offers too much work for too little pay to attract good candidates who will stay for the long term. No more races to the top. What we need is a race to make sure every school has a music teacher, every building is safe and beautiful and well-maintained, every child is well-fed, every classroom is full of books and supplies, and every teacher has what they need in order to help children discover the world of knowledge. 

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